Gerald Ford was the president of the United States from 1974 to 1977, following a vice presidency of about eight months. He is perhaps best known as the successor to disgraced president Richard Nixon, whom he pardoned, and as the American president during the fall of Saigon.
A college football player, graduate of Yale Law School, and navy officer during World War II, Ford became an active Republican after the war and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1948 on an internationalist platform that meshed well with the recent creation of the United Nations.
He served as a representative for 24 years, proposing no major legislation and focusing instead on negotiating between and supporting the legislation of others. As a member of the Warren Commission appointed to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he altered the Commission’s findings to misreport the location of one of Kennedy’s wounds in order to support the single bullet theory—tampering that was not revealed until 1997.
In 1973, while Ford was House minority leader, Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew resigned in the middle of the Watergate scandal. The Speaker of the House and other congressional leaders made it clear to Nixon that they would accept only the mild, moderate Ford as Agnew’s replacement. He was confirmed at the end of the year and became president when Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974.
One month later, Ford pardoned Nixon preemptively for any crimes committed against the nation during his presidency. The pardon brought great criticism upon Ford: Some accused him of pardoning Nixon in exchange for the resignation that made him president, others thought it was simply terrible judgment.
Many agreed that it discouraged the pursuit of charges against Nixon, hampering the Watergate investigation; Ford’s supporters have pointed to a 1915 Supreme Court decision that established that for the accused to accept a pardon, he must accept his guilt. Thus, pardoning Nixon found the former president guilty in the process.
In September 1975 two assassination attempts were made on Ford, the first by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a troubled young follower of Charles Manson. Secret Service agent Larry Buendorf managed to block the hammer of Fromme’s handgun with his thumb, preventing her from firing.
Later in the month, 45-year-old bookkeeper Sara Jane Moore shot at Ford during his visit to San Francisco, but failed because of the intervention of bystander Billy Sipple, a former marine and Vietnam veteran who soon became a gay hero when he came out of the closet. Moore’s motivations are unclear, but she spoke of wanting to “create chaos.”
Ford was upfront about the odd start to his presidency and referred to himself as an “unelected” president. The vice presidency was filled by Nelson Rockefeller, the popular and well-connected New York governor whose presidential bids had repeatedly failed. Rockefeller’s replacement when Ford ran in the 1976 election was Bob Dole, who would later be known for his own run of failed presidential campaigns.
After narrowly beating Governor Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination, Ford lost the election to Jimmy Carter. In 1980 he rejected Reagan’s offer to make him his running mate when Reagan refused to consider a “copresidency” in which Ford’s power would be increased beyond ordinary vice presidential duties.
As an ex-president, he spoke in favor of election reform and gay rights and condemned the war in Iraq. He died the day after Christmas, 2006, at the age of 93—the longest-lived American president.